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Fast & Furious Money Machine

April. Two weeks. $118,000,000. That’s either:

a) Impressive

b) Surprising

c) Making your head explode.

d) All of the above.

–depending on your outlook about a silly little B-movie from 2001, that somehow morphed into a rock-the-box-office/Vin-Diesel-is-alive/from-hereafter-everything-will-look-like-a-music-video franchise.

And yes, I know this, because I’ve seen them. Because I’m bizarrely fascinated by bad action movies, and I enjoy absurdity, much more than I enjoy posturing. And I find these films far less offensive than those directed by Richard Kelly… or Zac Braff. There, I said it. Moving on…

Opening weekend numbers like this -it’s the biggest opening of the year with over $70 million- always gives the industry a Gollum-like psychotic gleam in its eye. But in these times of economic peril, coupled with the fact that this is a month reserved for the dumping of Hollywood’s non-events, that number almost makes Furious look like The Dark Knight of 2009 April, and in turn, makes the studios sit up and take notes on what made it work this time out.

Try as we may, it’s hard to ignore the irony. The Furious franchise encapsulates the very ideals that have been blamed for our current financial predicament… loud, flashy and excessive. What strikes me the most about these films is that they showcase such sophisticated automotive and technological advancements, all while remaining so aesthetically dated. The cars rumble across the screen like radioactive pellets, with their neon paint. Aggro-rock collides with hard-core rap and reggae-tinged club music, while the women (save for two) are relegated to dancing and making out with each other in the background, clad in bikinis -whether they’re on the beach or not- very reminiscent of hip-hop videos from the days of Puff Daddy. And with the exception of a moderately respectable opening sequence, the action is played out with the singular goal of sensory overload. These are not artfully directed Bourne Trilogy chase sequences. Furious race scenes are utterly insane, and totally saturated with computer graphics. The latest installment shows one that takes place amidst some serious civilian traffic (in Los Angeles), maxing out all limits of ridiculousness in the first act alone. Overblown, overacted… overly destructive.

Which brings me to Vin Diesel. BFV (Big Friendly Vin) held off on reprising his role in previous sequels (though he makes a cameo in the third one), only to return at a time when he can’t help but reek of a little desperation. I mean, what the hell happened to him? It was the first The Fast and the Furious that launched him into super stardom and upon review (I caught it on FX the other night), it’s clear that younger Vin was not entirely without some degree of charm. He teeters along the thin line between posing and presence, able to draw in his audience mainly due to the physical contrast he provides against his co-stars. He’s just so much bigger than they are… lumpier… deeper (Seriously. His voice is really deep. It’s so weird.). And next to the likes of Paul Walker, his work almost passes for acting (which is true of most people… even the dogs in that sledding movie he did).

This is less the case in the latest Furious film. Diesel is even bigger now, if you can believe that, which is less Contrast, more Cartoon… and spends most of the movie entering and exiting the frame like a Mack truck, growling at people and clenching his jaw. His voice is also deeper, leading me to believe that he is, in fact, a government experiment, gone awry. And he speaks exactly 5 times… maybe.

But, it’s possible that people still respond to Diesel’s tough-guy persona. Apparently what sparked his decision to return (and the studio’s desire to have him) was the fan response to his surprise appearance in Tokyo Drift. And to date, Fast & Furious has had the best opening weekend out of any of the films in the franchise, including the first. Though I attribute most of that to a slow movie season, part of me has to wonder if Diesel doesn’t have at least a little bit to do with it, as well. Entertainment Weekly certainly thinks so.

Culturally, it’s an interesting shift, if it is indeed that. Diesel is the hyperbolic counterpoint to the verbose and sardonic Paul Rudds and Vince Vaughns of the world, whose comedies often dominate not only the box-office, but the roster of films at many major studios. Trading quick verbal jabs for ferocious punches (because apparently, real men hate neurosis, but really like punching things), Diesel’s character is single-minded, skilled and unshakable. It’s an archetype that has been compelling on film in the past (see: Terminator and T2: Judgment Day) and does not depend on mirroring reality (because in real life, I laugh), perhaps provoking the same desired envy from his audience that outer beauty and sex appeal inspires in women, by the films being promoted to them.

In fact, the Furious films are a lot like Sex and the City: wildly unreal, socially destructive, and yet strangely enjoyable. Diesel is an appropriate vessel for rage. He’s a brute force wrecking machine. Hit first… and then hit again. DO NOT STOP HITTING. And the plot of this particular Furious effort is cathartic, in its own way. There is little that doesn’t get destroyed over the course of the movie: a gas tanker, a pivotal character, dialogue (what little there is), an FBI agent’s face, a couple apartment windows, an actual apartment, various drug runners, a secret tunnel to Mexico and a plethora of automobiles (foreign and domestic) too numerous to count.

And of course. They’re making another one.

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